Why don't my NUcat searches yield many results? (B. Zakarin 2010)

Contributor: B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships, b-zakarin@northwestern.edu
Posted: 2010

Be active and experimental when conducting your initial searches for sources.

Amateur researchers plug in search terms that make sense to them and get frustrated when library catalogs and databases return items that do not meet their expectations.  To search efficiently and effectively, put some thought into your search terms:  Have you chosen the keywords that best capture your research interests?  How does the topic you are exploring intersect with other subjects?

For example, if you are interested in the role of nationalism in Chinese foreign policy, you might do a keyword search in NUcat for “Chinese nationalism.”  With more than 50 results, you would be off to a good start and may immediately set out to look at those sources.  If, however, you searched again for “China AND nationalism,” you would get nearly 300 results.  Since your goal in these early weeks is to get a broad (if superficial) view of the scholarly landscape, you should run searches with different keywords.

Different databases and catalogs have different organizational structures, so you must conduct various searches within each one you use.  Do not assume that a catalog like NUcat and a database like JSTOR are designed the same way.  Furthermore, you should run similar searches in multiple resources because no single tool is comprehensive.  Keep track of your search methods so you can share your legwork with faculty and librarians; this will give them a good idea of the ground you have covered, and enable them to brainstorm with you about where to look next.


The most common way to search is by keyword.  Depending on the specificity of your interests, the utility of keyword searches will vary.  If too narrow, the paucity of results will frustrate you.  If too broad, the volume will overwhelm you.  For example, a keyword search for “Vietnam War” yields more than 3,000 items in NUcat—too much to browse quickly and efficiently.  If your keyword search does not help, try a subject search.  A subject search for “Vietnam War” in NUcat produces 450 entries, each of which is a Library of Congress subject heading with the number of items under that heading.  Here are a few samples:

  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—African Americans” (27)
  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Bibliography” (15)
  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Diplomatic history” (20)
  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Fiction” (77)
  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Journalists” (10)
  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Participation, Australian” (4)
  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Public opinion” (24)
  • “Vietnam War, 1961-1975—Sources” (12)

As you can see, that massive list of 3,000 (from the keyword search) is divided up among subjects (450) to give you some food for thought.  This handful of sample subjects offers many points of entry for students interested in domestic American history, international relations, history and literature, and more.  In addition, note the categories of “Bibliography” and “Sources”; these universal subject headings point, respectively, to volumes with lists of relevant scholarship (secondary sources) and collections of (or individual) historical documents (primary sources).  Use these shortcuts to your advantage.